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First Impressions: Luke 3:7-18

December 8, 2009

The Gospel lesson continues the story of John the Baptist and his message of repentance.  Last week’s text described John and his role.  This week’s reading shares the content of his message.  The crowd also played a role in the story, because much of what John said is in response to the questions of those who heard him.  The text seems to divide conveniently into three parts, verses 7-9, 10-14 and 15-17.  Verse 18 is simply a summary of John’s prophetic work.  I will be focusing the sermon on verses 10-14.

3:7-9 Many have pointed out that John’s preaching method seems harsh and unproductive.  After all, which of us have congregations that would take kindly to being called a “brood of vipers”?  Maybe you should try that this week, just to see who sticks around for the end of the sermon.  Let me know how that works out for you.

A terrible wrath is coming, and nothing can save us except the correct behavior or the right results (good fruit).  Not even our spiritual heritage can save us from the judgment.  It is a warning that would bring despair to most of us, since we are all painfully aware of our sins and failures.  John didn’t seem like the kind of guy to invite over for dinner for pleasant conversation.

3:10-14 The crowd seemed to share this sense of despair.   They asked, “What then should we do?”  If the ax is at the root, and our own religiosity cannot save us, then we must be lost.  What is left to be done?  John responded with some unexpectedly simple and practical advice.  If you have food or clothing to share, do so.  Behave fairly and ethically on the job.  Don’t cheat, defraud or falsely accuse.  Can it really be that easy?

Yes and no.  Living a simple and honest life isn’t so simple, especially in our modern world where our actions have consequences far beyond the boundaries of our own neighborhoods.  When I buy a cheap shirt, I may be supporting a system of forced child labor.  When I drive to the store, I may be contributing to the poor respiratory health of every child in the region.

Yet, John is not telling the crowds they must be perfect or that they must change the world.  They can begin to act right where they are.  Share with a neighbor.  Do your job honestly and well.  Treat others with respect.  No one needs a burning bush or a mandate from the heavenly throne to do that.

Many of us (including myself) feel that we will be perfectly willing to embark on a grand adventure of faith just as soon as all the details are in order.  Just as soon as I get my degree…just as soon as I get married…just as soon as the kids leave home…just as soon as…then I’ll take the next bold step.  The problem is that the details are never in complete order.  There is always one more thing.

A part of the issue is that we imagine that the only truly worthwhile things are the big things such as the missionary trip to a far off land or the grand project that will change the lives of every poor child in the city.  John’s message helps us to correct that misunderstanding.  Live faithfully where you are right now.  Your care of the simple things in life will adequately reveal whether or not you are living the repentant life.  William Willimon has some helpful thoughts along this line in Pulpit Resource (“The Politics of Advent,” vol. 37, No. 4, pp.45-48.).

3:15-17 This final section is about whether or not John is the Messiah.  Not only did he deny it, but he put himself in a subservient role to the real Messiah.  John is less powerful, and the nature of his baptism is different.  The Holy Spirit (and important theme in Luke) and fire are the marks of the baptism that is coming.  Both images are also symbols of the coming judgment about which John has been warning.

3:18 John’s message started out severely, and it ended severely.  Somehow, the people listened.  Rather than being put off by his harsh rhetoric, they were engaged enough asked him what they should do in response to his words.  And somehow, Luke could still call this difficult message of judgment and fire “good news.”

What made John’s message good news?  How is it that the people would stand to listen to such an unpleasant man?  What is his message for us?

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